Hawk (Excerpt)

Years ago, Vlad Taltos came to make his way as a human amidst the impossibly tall, fantastically long-lived natives of the Dragaeran Empire. He joined the Jhereg, the Dragaeran House (of which there are seventeen) that handles the Empire’s vices: gambling, rackets, organized crime. He became a professional assassin. He was good at it.

But that was then, before Vlad and the Jhereg became mortal enemies.

For years, Vlad has run from one end of the Empire to the other, avoiding the Jhereg assassins who pursue him. Now, finally, he’s back in the imperial capital where his family and friends are. He means to stay there this time. Whatever happens. And whatever it takes.

Gideon Smith amazon buy linkHawk, the latest in Steven Brust’s New York Times bestselling Vlad Taltos series, is available October 7th from Tor Books.

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

My name is Vlad Taltos. I used to be an assassin, until—

The criminal organization that operates as part of the House of the Jhereg has rules. One is that you do not threaten the contact between the Organization and the Empire, because they need that guy to keep the Empire happy. I kind of broke that rule a little.

There’s also a rule that you do not testify against the Organization to the Empire. I kind of broke that rule a lot.

I had reasons, having to do with an estranged wife, a rebellion, and some guys really pissing me off. The Jhereg is not that interested in my reasons. So, yeah, now I’m an ex-assassin, and now the Jhereg wants to kill me, and they’re happy to use any sort of personal connections, blackmail, magic, or influence to do it. This is not a comfortable position.

When you have a price on your head you’ve got nothing: no contacts, no access to your operating capital, no chance to see your estranged wife and eight-year-old son. You move around to anywhere you think will keep you ahead of the hired killers. You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you: a notorious thief whose name makes everyone around you check his pockets; an undead Enchantress famous for destroying anyone who comes near her; a sorcerer known to have sacrificed entire villages to his goddess; his even more hot-tempered cousin; and a flying lizard of a familiar with a nasty sense of humor.

Bottom line: As long as you’re wanted, you’re not staying anywhere.

 

1
Making a Stand
or
Making Tracks

Several years ago, I was getting drunk with four or five of the most powerful sorcerers in the Empire—like you do—when Daymar told a story. We were in the library of Castle Black, having just finished doing something dangerous and preposterous, and our host, Morrolan, pulled out a case of a really good white wine from Descin. Sethra Lavode, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, was there, as was Morrolan’s cousin Aliera, and I think the Necromancer, and of course Daymar.

The more we talked, the more we drank; and the more we drank, the less I can recall of what we said. But I remember that at some point in there they started telling stories of the various rites of passage among the different Houses. You know, some tests or things you go through before you’re considered fully part of the House, or maybe an adult, or officially a bloodthirsty asshole, or whatever it is your House values.

All the Great Houses except the Teckla and the Jhereg have them, and they’re all different. The Dragonlords— Morrolan and Aliera—told of having to make tough command decisions during a combat exercise. Sethra recounted different tests among the Dzur, the Tiassa, and the Iorich across much of history, which she could do, having lived through all of history and a little more besides. I talked about a couple of traditions among Eastern witches; including the one that had got me the jhereg that was, at that moment, sitting on my shoulder telepathically making smart-ass remarks.

Daymar turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining storyteller for a guy who never seemed sure where his imagination stopped and reality started. I don’t remember a lot about what he said, but I remember enjoying it. And there is one piece that must have stuck with me. I know this because years later I abruptly remembered it, setting off, well, I guess everything that I’m about to tell you.

Here’s the bit of what he said that I suddenly remembered: “I had to hide from the Orb while I did it.” I must have been pretty drunk not to react at the time, but—jumping forward to now, to a time when I was on the run from the Jhereg and concentrating all of my energy on living through each day—I woke up from a light sleep and said aloud, “Verra’s tits and toenails!”

I sat there in a dank, windowless, cell-like room, with my back against the stone wall, and let things play out in my head. Then I stood up and started pacing. There wasn’t enough space in the room, so I went out and started pacing up and down the hall.

“Okay,” I said into Loiosh’s mind after a while. “I might have something.”

“Think soup and bed rest will cure it, Boss?”

“Something that might get me out of trouble with the Jhereg.”

Silence in my mind. Then, “Really?”

“Maybe.”

“What—”

“Find Daymar. Have him meet me across the street,” I said.

Loiosh didn’t reply; I opened the door at the far end of the hallway and he flew out, followed by his mate, Rocza. A moment later she returned and hissed at me. That was another time when I was glad she and I couldn’t speak with each other, although, really, she was communicating just fine.

 

I don’t know. If I hadn’t been on my way to see my kid, I might not have decided it was time to risk everything. I wonder. I mean, it probably wouldn’t have changed things, but that’s the sort of thing you wonder about later.

So, yeah. A couple of days before I suddenly woke up with that memory of Daymar, I was on my way to visit my kid at the home of my estranged wife in South Adrilankha when someone tried to kill me. Loiosh warned me. “Boss,” he said. “There are two people up ahead, hiding. They’re Dragaerans. I think there’s a Morganti weapon.” He didn’t actually say, “They’re waiting to kill you,” but he also didn’t tell me that water is wet and rocks are hard (nor that water is hard, but never mind that for now).

I stopped. This part of South Adrilankha was full of cottages set at varying distances back from a narrow road dotted with large deciduous trees. I figured the trees were planted there so their leaves would catch the stench of the slaughterhouses and keep it close to you. That way, even on days like this when the breeze wasn’t from the south, you had a little reminder of why you hated this part of the city. I stepped behind one of the trees and spoke to Loiosh.

“Goodness,” I said. “Whatever could they want?”

“Imperial representatives, wanting to present you with an island kingdom?”

“That’s just what I was thinking they were.”

“As you would say: Heh.”

“How far ahead?”

“Fifty yards or so.”

“In other words, right in front of Cawti’s house?”

“Yeah. Also—”

“What?”

“Another guy, leaning against the house itself.”

“That doesn’t make any—”

“Colors of the House of the Dragon, Boss, and a gold half-cloak.”

“That makes perfect sense.”

It was a dilemma. The assassins—I had no doubt they were assassins because I’m not an idiot—were in front of the house my kid lived in. I could come around behind them and hunt the hunters, but that would bring the whole mess to my front door, in a fairly literal way. Yeah, Cawti was there, and she could certainly handle herself. But murder tends to get noticed, sometimes even in South Adrilankha. And there was a Dragonlord, an Imperial Guardsman, on duty. That would mean the Jhereg couldn’t get me, here and now; but I couldn’t get them, either. Put it another way: Much as I wanted to take them down, it seemed like the best thing would be to just walk away.

But if they were watching my house (dammit, not my house; my ex-wife’s house), it meant it would never be safe to visit there.

“Boss, it never has been safe to visit there.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And why the guardsman?”

“Norathar. I mean, the Dragon Heir, not the boy. I’ll bet you six dead teckla she arranged for that gold-cloak to be there, to keep Cawti and the boy safe.”

I chuckled a bit to myself as I imagined just what Cawti must have said about being protected. I’d have loved to have eavesdropped on that conversation. Probably psychic, though. Too bad you can’t listen in on someone else’s psychic conversations.

For now, I kept myself hidden, I studied, and considered. I discovered that my right hand had gone to the hilt of Lady Teldra, about whom more later. I relaxed and let the hand fall to my side while I thought.

Yeah, sometimes I think. It isn’t what I do best, but occasionally I just give it a shot anyway.

If I were the assassins, and there was an Imperial Guardsman right in front of where I thought the target would be, what would I do? That was easy—find a different place to “take my shot,” in the idiom of my homeland. Where? Well, ideally, a place where there weren’t any Imperial Guardsmen? But okay, if I wanted the guy really, really bad, and I couldn’t find anywhere else? Maybe—maybe—I’d try to arrange for the guard to be distracted long enough for me to make the attempt anyway. It would be complicated, tricky, expensive, and risky; but maybe.

Well, no, to be more precise, I wouldn’t do that, but it was possible these guys would. After all, there were two of them doing a job that usually only one did—assassins usually work alone. Having two of them waiting for me was, to be sure, an honor of sorts. But like the guy on the Executioner’s Star said: Except for the honor, I’d have preferred to skip the ceremony.

“What do you think, Loiosh?”

“You know what I think, Boss. You should walk away right now.”

“Yeah. Talk me into it.”

“If I had to talk you into it, you wouldn’t be asking me to. Let’s go already.”

There was nothing to say to that. Loiosh landed on my right shoulder, Rocza on my left, and I turned and walked back the way I’d come. After a few hundred feet, I stepped off into an alley, and took back streets all the way to the Stone Bridge, which leads back to the City. Instead of taking the bridge, however, I cut north on a street whose name I never learned. In a few minutes, I saw a dilapidated building off to my right that had the vertical parallel lines—drawn or painted above the door—that indicate, in the Easterners’ district, a place that lets out rooms for the night.

“The street would have fewer vermin than that place,” said Loiosh. “And probably be safer.”

I didn’t answer him.

I paid for a room from the fat, grizzled woman in the chair next to the door. She grunted a number at me.

“Are there actually numbers on the rooms?” I asked her.

She squinted at me, and opened her mouth. She didn’t have many teeth.

“Up the stairs, second door on the right. If you have a bag, carry it yourself,” she added, which wasn’t necessary because she could see I didn’t have one, and because I wouldn’t have trusted her with it if I had. It was the kind of place the lower order of prostitutes avoid as too disgusting.

She glowered at me, I think just on principle; but when I started moving, my cloak shifted, and she could see the hilt of my rapier, and she stopped glowering, and I knew if we had any more conversation she would be very polite.

The room was about what you’d expect. I tested the bed. I’d slept in worse. Of course, that was on the ground, but still. There was an empty water pitcher, which indicated a pump room nearby, so it could have been much worse. There was a window big enough for Loiosh and Rocza to fit through, but no way to close it, or even to block any light that came through unless I drove a nail into the wall above it and hung my cloak there. I considered going out to find a blacksmith. There was a chair and a small table with a washbasin on it. The chair looked safe, so I sat in it, and relaxed for half an hour or so while I considered nails and other matters.

“Boss, there really is a lot of insect life in here.”

I grunted and stood up.

You could say that I was unable to perform any witchcraft because of the amulet I wore that made me invisible to magical detection, but it wouldn’t be strictly true. I took a selection of herbs from my pouch, put them in the tin water basin, and lit them. Just because I couldn’t invoke any power didn’t mean I couldn’t use what I knew, and what I knew was how to drive at least most of the insect life out of the room. After that, it was just a matter of leaving the room for a couple of hours while the herbs did—

“Boss! There’s someone in the hall.”

I froze, my hand on the doorknob.

There’d been occasional people walking up and down the hallway all along, but Loiosh wouldn’t have mentioned this one without reason.

“Check the window.”

He flapped over there, stuck his head out. “No good, Boss; two of them out there.”

“Two? Two outside, and one inside? Three of them? What is this organization coming to?”

“There might be more than one outside the door, Boss. I can’t tell for sure.”

I looked around for a place to hide. I mean, there wasn’t one, and I knew there wasn’t one, but I looked anyway, because you do. I could jump out the window where I knew there were two of them, and, with any luck, Loiosh and Rocza could distract them while I recovered from the jump enough to, you know, not die. But aside from any other problems, I wasn’t sure I could fit through the window. I could wait and deal with the unknown or unknowns who, I presumed, were getting ready to smash my door down, and—well, same problem. If it were me on the other side of the door, I’d blow the damned thing up and rush in before the dust settled. Crap. If I were in a farce, I’d hide under the bed. In a play full of exciting fake violence I’d . . .

Hmmmm.

The room didn’t have a real ceiling, just bare rafters with the roof a few feet above them.

“Boss, seriously? That’s what you’re going with?”

“Got a better idea?”

I stood on the bed frame and jumped, catching hold of one of the rafters. I pulled myself up, which wasn’t as easy as it should have been. Either I’d gained weight since coming back to Adrilankha, or else the extra hardware I’d picked up recently was weighing me down. But I got there, stood on the beam, and put my other hand on the slanting roof for balance.

Loiosh and Rocza flew up next to me and door blew in, almost knocking me off the beam in spite of my grip.

From above, all I could tell was that there were two of them, one of them holding a dagger and the other a Morganti broadsword. I mean, you don’t exactly see that it’s Morganti, unless you’re in light bright enough to notice that there’s no reflection from the metal, but it doesn’t matter. You know it’s a Morganti weapon. Even wearing a Phoenix Stone amulet, which pretty much makes you deaf to both sorcery and psychic phenomena, if you’re that close to a Morganti weapon, you know.

They charged into the room ready to kill, stopped, looked around. I took a deep breath and a grip on the rafter. After a moment, they went over to the window and looked out on the street. The one with the dagger shrugged his shoulders. The other one turned around, looked up, saw me, opened his mouth, and got both of my boots in his teeth. He didn’t go out the window, which is what I’d been hoping for, but I could hear the crack when his head hit the sill; I didn’t think I’d have to worry about him for a bit.

The other one turned to me. I’d fallen to the ground after my heroic leap, so I rolled back out of range while Loiosh and Rocza got in the assassin’s face in a very literal, biting, fillhim-with-jhereg-venom kind of way. I got to my feet and recovered my balance, then I threw the basin of burning herbs in his face, then drew a dagger and stabbed him in the throat, angled up to get the base of his brain. In a move that had become almost automatic, I stepped to the side to avoid the stuff that would require laundry services if it got on my clothes. The other guy seemed to be unconscious. I stabbed him in the throat too, just to be sure. I left the knife there.

Then I stood in front of the window and looked down at the other two, spreading my hands in a “now what?” gesture.

They turned and walked away.

What I really wanted to do next, just for effect, was to go back downstairs and demand a new room of the landlady on the basis that mine was full of vermin, the washbasin was dented, and the door was broken. But I didn’t. I went back down the stairs and, ignoring her, walked out the door. If she had any presence of mind and a few connections, she’d sell that Morganti broadsword on the gray market for enough to retire on.

I took a sharp left, taking me off in a different direction than the two button-men had gone.

I wondered how they’d found me.

After a couple of blocks I stopped, rested against a building, and let myself shake for a while. I don’t know, maybe two minutes, maybe five.

Evening was coming on.

I’d been in Adrilankha for several months; too long to be in one place with assassins after you. Loiosh was no longer bothering to tell me how stupid it was for me to hang around. I couldn’t argue with him, even before the Jhereg stationed outside Cawti’s place confirmed it. The price on my head was high enough to be tempting to anyone.

I had to get out of the city, but I didn’t want to. My son was here, and I’d only managed to see him a few times. My friends were here, and I’d hardly seen them at all. My life—no, my life was no longer here; my death was here. Sorry if that sounds a bit over-the-top, but as far as I could tell, it was simply true.

“Quit whining, Boss.”

“I’m not whining, I’m reflecting.”

“Then quit reflecting with that tone of mind.”

“Maybe we should go to Szurke and see my grandfather.”

“Good idea.”

“Or I could spend some more time back East.”

“That’d be good.”

“Or maybe the Kanefthali Mountains.”

“I’ve always wanted to see those.”

“Or—”

“Oh, stop it, Boss. If we’re just going to wait here until you’re killed, at least don’t pretend—”

“Damn, Loiosh. Getting a little bitchy in our old age, are we? Ouch. Cut it out. I’m not saying we’re going to stay here—”

“No, you just don’t plan to leave.”

I didn’t answer him, a policy I should have adopted several minutes before. Or maybe years.

“Ha,” he said.

Rocza, who’d been flying around for the last minute or so, landed on my shoulder again, shifting from foot to foot, which was her way of saying she was hungry. We found a bakery, where I paid too much for a couple of buns stuffed with too little kethna that was too sweet. The baker’s assistant tried very hard to keep his eyes off the weapon at my side. I didn’t speak to him. I picked up a can of weak beer from a street vendor nearby and walked, looking around.

Eventually I found what passes for a park in South Adrilankha—a place where some grass and weeds had grown up in a large vacant lot with a few low bushes and couple of scrawny trees. I sat down and leaned against one, and ate the buns and fed some to Loiosh and Rocza. It was a good place, because no one could sneak up on me without my familiar seeing him. Although here, in the middle of the Easterners’ district, I should be safe enough.

When we were done eating I relaxed for a while. There was a nice breeze coming in from the City, so for once South Adrilankha didn’t smell like the slaughterhouses to the southeast. My mind kept coming back to the conversation with Loiosh, and I kept shoving it aside. What I needed to be thinking about was how I’d been found in that flophouse. There were very few possibilities, and all of them were bad. Or it was something I hadn’t even considered possible, and that was worse.

Okay, relax. Let’s look at all the possibilities, one at a time, and figure out—

“Boss,” said Loiosh. “You’re being watched.”

“Yeah?” I said, looking around. “Where? Who?”

“Other end of the park. Sight-spell. Dragaeran. Jhereg colors.&rdquo

I felt my breath catch, and my heart gave a couple of test thuds to make sure it was ready. I was in South Adrilankha. I was in the Easterners’ quarter. I had walked away from the flophouse and gotten lost among back streets and unmarked alleys. There’s no way the Jhereg could have found me here. No way.

Except that they had.

I didn’t reach for a weapon; I didn’t even move. Not yet.

“I need to see,” I said. “And send Rocza on a sweep of the area in case there’s more than one.”

“Already doing it, Boss.”

“Good. Here I come.”

Colors swam; some of them disappeared, new ones occurred. My vision wavered, steadied, and I could see the man he’d spoken of. We moved closer. He was staring into something in his palm, then glancing in the direction where my body waited.

And, for just a second, his eyes flicked up toward me. It wasn’t much, he didn’t hold it for long, but it was enough. I returned to my body.

“Loiosh! You and Rocza, out of there now!”

“Boss, what—?”

“Get height and distance. Move!”

And I could feel Loiosh’s response—the jolt of fear—and could only assume Rocza had been given the message as well.

I had, it seemed, gotten to my feet, and drawn Lady Teldra. I was walking toward the Jhereg. I was aware that there was probably another assassin around, maybe more. I hoped so. I was suddenly in a mood to kill as many of them as presented themselves. I had just enough presence of mind to have Lady Teldra stay alert for the minuscule wavering around objects that tells you that someone is using an invisibility spell. It’s always the little things that bite you in the ass.

The Jhereg turned and ran. It was very undignified. I was never going to catch him, and I had no intention of throwing Lady Teldra. I looked around for someone else to kill, but I saw no other Jhereg in the area. In fact, I saw no one at all.

Yeah, well, pull a weapon like Lady Teldra out, and that’s what’s going to happen. The least sensitive lout will get the feeling that there’s something bad out there. Anyone with any psychic ability will feel like all the denizens of the Nightmare Abyss have come climbing out singing “Dirge of the Red House.” So, no, there was no one around.

“Boss? What’s going on?”

“Where are you?”

“Half a mile up on an updraft, and almost over the ocean-sea. What’s—”

“Stay there for a bit.”

“Boss—”

“Just for a bit.”

I looked around the area again, carefully. I moved around just enough to make sure the spindly trees and weeds weren’t concealing anyone.

“What’s going on, Boss?”

“A fluffy kitten tea party.”

“Boss—”

“Just wait.”

It felt like all of my nerve endings were right on top of my skin—like all of my senses were strained to the limit. There’s a kind of exhilaration that comes with this feeling, but I don’t recommend it. There was movement in a tree off to my left. I spun that way, raising Lady Teldra, who had taken the form of a shortsword for the occasion. It was just a fucking squirrel. I looked around some more. There was still someone. Somewhere nearby.

Lady Teldra was naked in my hand, and there was still someone around the edge of the park, moving from tree to bush, trying to stay out of my sight. I had to give him credit for balls, if not sense. Just one? Too soon to say.

There was almost a hundred feet between me and anything that could be used for cover. There is no way they’d come at me in the open like this, and I’d be fine with it if they tried. And no invisibility spell or illusion ever cast would fool Lady Teldra if she was alert and looking. She may not be the best at casting spells, but she can detect and disrupt them like nothing you’ve ever seen. So I waited.

I don’t know how long I waited, because when you’re standing like that, no idea what will happen, trying to be ready for anything, it’s hard to keep track of how much time is passing. But after what felt like an hour but was almost certainly closer to five minutes, I smelled smoke. Then I saw it rolling toward me; thick smoke, thick enough to let someone get right up to me before I could see him. He needn’t cast a spell on me; he just needed to cast a spell on himself to permit him to breathe and see through the smoke. He? I hoped he, not they. If there were more than one, I could be in trouble. Jhereg assassins usually work alone; but, like I said before, sometimes there are teams of two. And I’d just proven that sometimes there are four. Four, for the love of all things broken.

“Boss?”

“Stay where you are, Loiosh. I got this.”

There are times when—no, I won’t explain. I turned and ran just as fast as I could away from the smoke. And, yes, I knew there was a pretty good chance that either I was doing just what they expected, or they had contingencies for me running like that. Barlen’s scaly arse. Sophisticated trick they’d pulled on me. Flint, steel, a pile of leaves, and a wind spell. To get me, the button-man probably had a big stick.

I’m not all that fast a runner, and Dragaerans have longer legs than we poor, short humans; but there was always the hope no one was chasing me. There was a puddle of water in the middle of the park from yesterday’s rain—a big enough puddle to slow me down. I swung right to avoid it, and in front of me was a long, low shrub; perfect for someone to be hiding behind. Just in case, I swerved at the last minute, dove over it, and rolled to my feet. And, sure enough, there he was—just where he should have been. If I’d had time, I’d have been astonished—how often do you find an assassin where you’re expecting one?

But I didn’t have time.

He was very fast, that one. He drew a Morganti longsword and had a dagger in the other hand, and he was showing every sign of knowing how to use them. The sword came down in a fast arc from my left, toward my head. I took a step back and parried with Lady Teldra, while drawing a fighting knife from behind my back, but he was awfully quick, and very good, and there was what at first felt like a dull, weak thud in my right arm just at the elbow, but then there was a whole lot of pain, then there was numbness and Lady Teldra dropped to the ground; then there was panic. Well, almost.

He came at me with both blades then; I stepped back, tried to draw my rapier, but my right arm wasn’t working. He missed me, and then came in again, both weapons from the same angle, this time coming down from my right. I didn’t have a clear idea of what was behind me. I couldn’t look. Loiosh and Rocza were a long, long way away. My primary hand was disabled, and he had a Morganti sword and a long fighting knife coming at me. More important, Lady Teldra was on the ground and I kept getting farther away from her. And this guy may not have been the best assassin I’d ever met, but he was an awfully good fighter.

I was becoming concerned.

I took a step back and to my left as he struck again, this time the blades coming from completely different angles; I only just barely avoided the knife. I felt wetness on my right hand, which meant there was some feeling there, and it was bleeding. I threw my knife at him, aiming at his chest. It hit him point-first, which wasn’t bad for a left-hand shot, but there wasn’t enough strength for it to stick. It checked his progress for a moment. The good news was, a whole lot of the stuff I keep around to throw was set up to be drawn with my left hand, figuring I’d have a more convincing argument in my right. I drew out three shuriken and sent them at him, and one went into his cheek, making him pause again. I tested my right hand to see if I could do anything with it yet. I couldn’t. I continued circling to my left, hoping to make my way to Lady Teldra; if I could pick her up, I knew she could heal me.

He apparently figured out what I was doing—which was disturbing on several levels—and moved to interpose himself. For the first time, I got a look at him: a narrow face, dead gray eyes, broad shoulders, hair cut short enough to be bristles. Neither of us said a word.

I carelessly threw a handful of darts in his direction—he couldn’t know that I hadn’t gotten around to dabbing poison on them—and pulled a knife from my boot. Then, with the same motion, I stepped in to him, committing everything I had to a shot at his right arm, hoping for a combination of surprise and an unexpected angle of attack from inside the arc of that big fucking sword.

I got it; the knife sank in, and something connected with my right side, feeling like I’d been punched there, but I had gotten a good, satisfying thrust at his sword arm. The Morganti sword fell slowly, like I could watch it spinning on the way down. And with the same slowness, I drew the blade from his arm at the same time as he pulled his from my side.

Insofar as you do anything that can be called thinking in situations like that, what I thought was that he’d either stoop to pick up his Morganti weapon, or, more likely, stab me again with the knife in his left hand. I didn’t figure him to punch me in the throat.

I drove my knife up under his chin at the same time as he brought his right fist into my throat. He hit my throat in the right place—I mean, for him—and really, really hard.

I’d gotten him. Yay.

Now all I had to do was figure out a way to breathe.

His knees went, and he started to go down; it seemed to me that it was only then that the Morganti sword hit the ground. I don’t know. Most of my attention was on my throat; my brain was screaming that it really wanted some air, please. Right now.

When your windpipe is crushed, you can go maybe a minute or two at the best of times—and already panting from the exertion of surviving a fight is hardly the best of times. How much time did I have before I blacked out, then died? Twenty seconds? Twenty-five? I think Loiosh said something into my mind, but I didn’t have the attention to spare.

My first thought was Lady Teldra, but I was too disoriented; I had no idea which way to move, and whatever odd arcane sense might have told me where she was, was too busy screaming about getting air.

And my right arm still wasn’t working.

Seriously. This was starting to become a problem.

I had a knife in my hand. A fighting knife—mostly blade. It was good for cutting and slashing bellies and faces; it was never made for stabbing, or, if you will, puncturing. But it did have a point—ask the guy who’d just tasted it.

If there’s no other way, you can always cut your own throat.

I really, really, really do not recommend this as a way to pass an evening. Listening to someone with a monotonous voice recite an epic poem in a language you don’t speak while you’re hungry and need to find a privy is better than cutting your own throat. Well, okay, maybe as bad. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to think about it; if I had, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

I was, somehow, on my knees, and black splotches were forming in front of my eyes. I found the spot with the fingers of my left hand. My left hand was still holding the knife, so I gave myself a shallow cut on the right side of my neck, just so I’d be able to feel stupid later when I realized it. My fingers searched my neck. Take your time. Breathe! There’s the throatknob, now down—Need need need to breathe!

I slid the point in. It hurt. Harder than sliding the knife in, though, was not sliding it in too far; you don’t have much leeway in there before going all the way through the windpipe, or even nailing an artery, and if I did that I’d see a red spray through the black splotches, and then nothing, ever. Worse (though I didn’t give it any thought at the time) was that, while I had made a very careful and thorough study of Dragaeran anatomy, I hadn’t ever bothered to find out the differences between Dragaeran and human. But, like I said, I didn’t think about that as I was doing it; this was just not the moment to consider that, and, as the man said, there was no time to learn it now.

But here I am talking to you, so I must have managed it.

I held the knife where it was, sticking out of my throat, then I twisted it a little to open a gap for air. That really hurt. I leaned forward so the blood would flow out that way instead of going down my throat and making me cough.

And I inhaled.

Let me summarize: It was absolutely no fun at all.

And yet, I’ll tell you, that first rush of air felt so good, I wondered why I had never thought of doing this before.

Then I almost fell on my face, but with the knife still stuck in my throat holding my windpipe open, that would have been a tactical error. I reminded myself that, if I didn’t do something fast, I’d just bleed to death, and having gone through all the work of cutting my own throat only to have it prove useless would be more annoyance than I could stand. Of course, if the other assassin was still lurking nearby, and he managed to find me, the whole thing was moot. And I couldn’t see how he wouldn’t.

But you deal with one problem at a time.

“Boss!”

I couldn’t concentrate enough to make a coherent reply. My right arm wasn’t working, and my left was weak, and getting weaker. I knew I’d been badly stabbed in the side; I couldn’t tell exactly where, which was almost certainly a bad sign. But I became aware, then, of Lady Teldra; maybe six feet away. I went toward her, trying to move the knife as little as possible while walking on my knees, until, just short of where I needed to be, my knees refused to work any more and the world started spinning. I became aware that I was on my side and I made sure I hunched over so the blood wouldn’t go down my throat and pushed myself with my feet and rolled over on my back on top of her and then blood did go down my throat and coughing was maybe the worst thing ever, except I don’t remember much of it. I knew, as the world collapsed into a contracting tunnel of light, that she could heal me. I knew because she’d done so before; but then I’d been holding her in my hand. I wondered if she could do that while I was just sort of lying on top of her.

Interesting question, I decided.

The tunnel collapsed.

 

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